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Baguio at its best

By VICKY VELOSO-BARRERA, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 21, 2023 5:00 am

Many people run up to Baguio and the northern provinces to escape the summer’s heat, but did you know that the cooler months of December to February are when the City of Pines is at its best?

Cold and dry weather is the biggest draw, there’s barely a cloud to block that clear northern light, while our southernmost provinces get the rains and typhoon visits.

It’s two weeks before Christmas and the crowds are still not here. My Gen Z kids tell me that their generation, which likely caused the traffic on the NLEX, is headed instead to San Juan, La Union, the surfing capital of cool.

For a Baguio lover that’s not bad news. And my own kids love this place. The city will never have a shortage of charms to delight even the most social media-hooked of young people.

First of all, that serpentine drive up the last 20 kilometers or so rewards you with a view of pines that just sets the mood. 

Add to pines the Christmas music of The Carpenters, Ray Conniff and Michael Bublé as our road-trip playlist and that holiday mood is now in high gear. And if it’s not Christmastime there’s Ben&Ben for that easy driving vibe.

Baguio sunrise over Mt. Pulag

It helps that our apartment in barangay Mines View faces a quiet valley and magnificent Mt. Pulag sunrises. At eight in the morning, all I hear is a chorus of birdsong.

The weak signal in my area means that instead of being glued to gadgets, we turn to a trove of good books, a sungka set and walks with our pom Mareeh. 

Gloria Sto. Tomas and our pom Mareeh

Yes, because this trip is all girls—me and my two daughters, Gloria, who has been with us 25 years, and this adventurous pom. We left behind all the boys: my husband, son, the pom Denver, the rabbit Deepika and the sugar glider Alexander.

Horseback riding is an activity my elder daughter Hannah never tires of and after two decades we know all the pony boys, plant sellers, and fruit sellers at Wright Park. 

Hannah Barrera starts off from Wright Park, her happy place

But since the pandemic, many pony boys have found alternative work and construction on the park has shrunk the riding area. Not a problem for those who like to gallop on the hills like Hannah.

Poinsettias bloom in Baguio all year round

While my daughter is riding, I am off to Baguio Dairy Farm at the foot of Mount Sto. Tomas for fresh yogurt. As you drive to this facility your landmarks are the cows grazing nearby.

This year, in addition to the delicious strawberry and blueberry yogurts plus kesong puti, they are now selling super-yummy condensed milk. Perfect with your morning bread and strawberries!

A Vizcos strawberry cake surrounded by other Baguio staples: Strawberry jam, fresh strawberries,
Baguio Dairy yogurt and condensed milk

Next stop, Vizcos cafe for that incomparable strawberry cake. Try a slice and you’ll understand why they sell hundreds of these a day, all year round. 

There are three branches now: one on Session Road, one beside the supermarket inside SM Baguio, and another hidden inside a shop called Fog at Camp John Hay.

Since we bought our cake from Fog (appropriately it was a bit of a walk and a drive to find this hidden spot) we proceeded to the Manor to buy my son Joshua’s bilin of knitted pigs. The pigs remind him of his overweight pom Mareeh (now with us in Baguio to get as much exercise as she can). He collects the pigs in all the available colors and displays them with his other collectibles and artworks.

Lemon and Olives Greek salad
Where to eat

There is never enough time to eat in all the good Baguio places, no matter how long we are staying. We need to edit the list very carefully to include Lemons and Olives, the cafe at Bencab, and any branch of Pizza Volante.

The view from Bencab’s Museum

If there were no beautiful works by Bencab himself I would go anyway for the food. I always promise myself I will order something else instead of the boneless grilled chicken, but I never do. 

“Why don’t I ever order anything else?” I ask, as I look at my empty plate.

These awesome works by Bencab are photographs, not paintings: The limited-edition prints are reasonably
priced for a Bencab. Catch the exhibit “Skywatcher: Photographs by Bencab” running till January 28, 2024.

“Because it tastes so fresh,” answers my bunso.

I did try the apple crumble and all I can say is that a homesick American will not be disappointed.

Our Baguio apartment doesn’t feel like home without vases of alstroemeria.

The palengke chores are done. Go to the extreme right for the section where the residents, not the tourists, shop. There is the flower alley for alstroemeria, then we proceed to buy strawberries, beets, button mushrooms and my three kilos of dark-roasted Benguet arabica from Umali’s. 

An apple crumble fit to serve a homesick American: Need I say more?
What’s left to do?

The two most popular destinations in all of Baguio, which are a stone’s throw away from our apartment, are Mines View Park and Good Shepherd.

The shops of Mines View Park once upon a long time ago used to close the moment it got dark. Not anymore. Driving home from dinner in the dark will reveal the brightly lit shops and many parked cars.

Good Shepherd has changed in that breads and freshly brewed coffee are gone. But the queue for ube jam is just as long. Best to go when it opens first thing in the morning.

Now some tips

What you should know if you’re coming from Manila?

There is quite a bit of traffic on the NLEX itself, which disappears once you reach the SCTEX and TPLEX.

The confusing tollway payments should be paid attention to. Our RFID card, which we use for the Skyway within Manila, is what is used from the TPLEX onwards. But after the Skyway exit at Balintawak the other tolls take Easy Trip, which you load at gas stations once you are on the NLEX.

You can easily load your Easy Trip at a machine but if your card has a problem, as ours did, you will need to locate an Easy Trip kiosk with customer service. These open at 8:30 a.m. and so are not helpful for early-morning travelers like me. 

The upside of it is that the cash lane is now actually much shorter than the RFID or Easy Trip lanes. Yes! Surprise! It means most people are indeed using these automated forms of toll payments.

With that, I wish your trip up north—or south or east or west—to be fun, safe and full of adventure, regardless of where your road leads.